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Last Call by Tim Powers

Last Call (1992)

by Tim Powers

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The Fisher King trilogy (1)

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Last Call
by Tim Powers
Perennial 2003
$15.95; 535 pages
ISBN 038072846X

Last Call is one of my all time favorite books. I can return to this book again and again, and find something different in it each time. According to LibraryThing, the last time I read this book was in May of 2011, almost exactly six years ago. Which probably explains why I find the father/son relationships of the book so gripping now.

But I get ahead of myself. Tim Powers is a long time favorite author, and this was one of the first books of his I ever read. I am amazed that I persisted, because on first read, the book is bizarre. Who is the Fisher King? Why does Bugsy Siegel feature so prominently? Why does everyone keep quoting T. S. Eliot? What about the fractals and chaos theory? How does this all fit in with poker?

That very first reading, I was very, very confused. But I was also deeply intrigued. I immediately read the book again, and I tried to put the pieces together into a coherent whole. I didn't get there, but I started looking into the mythology of the Fisher King, and the historical events referenced in the book. I learned about the history of playing cards, and how they related to the Tarot. I tried to read The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot.

That last proved too dense and esoteric even for me. But I persisted. Last Call is the first book of a trilogy by Tim Powers, and reading the other two books did actually help fill some of what is going on, but I think Last Call is by far the best of the three. I got quite a bit of help from the collected works of John J. Reilly, who while not a Tim Powers fan, was conversant with Jung, comparative mythology, and the Fisher King.

I learned that all of the things about Bugsy Siegel actually happened. When I first read Last Call, I wasn't familiar with Powers' secret history style of writing, but his fastidious research paid off in hooking me forever. I learned about the Arthurian legend of the wounded King who ate nothing but fish and represented the health of the land and its people, and how this figures into the legitimacy of the Emperor who rules the Earth. I learned of the way in which the Tarot cards had morphed into the playing cards we use today. Finally I understood why early Protestants were so opposed to card games. I was intrigued by the sacramental imagination of Powers, who made the Eucharist real to me.

Last Call is part of the reason I mostly read fiction. Many people otherwise like me mostly read non-fiction, but I find that I learn the most about the world from fiction. This is probably a function of the kind of fiction I read. And probably the kind of person I am. Last Call is also the reason I deeply distrust Tarot cards, and all forms of fortune-telling and gambling. It just isn't worth the risk.

Also, Las Vegas will never, ever be the same to me after reading this book. I've never really been the kind of person who enjoyed the spectacle and excess of Vegas, but now that I've seen Las Vegas as the fortress of a bad King and a shrine and sacrifice to the gods of chaos and randomness, I really don't like it. Which is unfair to the people who work and live there, but what has been read cannot now be un-read.
A nuclear weapon test from Las Vegas

Returning to where I started, this time through the aspect of the book that was foremost in my mind was Scott Crane and his fathers, both real and adoptive. Fatherhood: real, adoptive, and mystical, is central to Last Call. The King is in a sense a father to us all, and thus the character of the King matters in the same manner as a father's does. Powers sets this up in the prologue, where we meet five-year-old Scott on a fun outing with his real father. They eat breakfast at the Flamingo, and flatten pennies on the railroad tracks. Scott worships his father, as most five-year-olds do.

Then we learn exactly what Georges is willing to do for power. What he has already done to Scott's older brother Richard. For just a moment, Georges finds his resolve wavering. To his own surprise, he actually loves his son. But he sets his face against his weakness, and proceeds.

Only the rebellion of Georges' wife saves Scott before Leon can consummate the ritual. Which Georges should have seen coming, because his life is an archetype. Scott is thus set up to displace his father in a re-enactment of mythology. The epilogue is a refrain of the prologue, and very bittersweet.

Sci-fi or fantasy novels that have mythological themes are not difficult to find. What makes Last Call remarkable is Powers' ability to make Georges Leon and Scott Crane seem like real people, while still instantiating a type. They seem real to me, rather than characters in a book. Each one, their loves and loss and failings, is like a person. That human verisimilitude is what balances out the craziness of a world where Tarot cards can kill you.

Powers has a fierce love of particular places, specifically Los Angeles and the areas nearby. Since I live across the Mojave desert from LA, and I have family there, I have driven across the Mojave more times than I would like to.

The highway was a straight line in the twilight, a tenuous line between the dark horizon so far ahead and the red horizon so far behind. The old Suburban barreled along steadily, squeaking and rocking but showing low temperature and a full tank of gas in the green radiance of its gauges. On either side of the highway the desert was pale sand, studded as far as the eye could see with widely spaced low markers that looked like, but couldn't have been, sprinkler heads.
This is exactly what the inhuman vastnesses of the Mojave feel like. I've been to LA and Vegas often enough to validate Powers' descriptions of them. Suspension of disbelief is a lot easier when you've been to all of the places in a book and find the descriptions spot-on. I imagine Tim and his wife Serena taking trips on the I-15 to get it just right.

I am a bit late this year, but I may make this a regular feature of my celebration of Easter. Much like Tolkien, and more inventively than Blish, Holy Week, the week of Passover and Easter, is at the center of the chronology of Last Call. This week represents an ending and a beginning, and certain things can only happen during this time. Classical allusions are one thing, but to interleave them with Christian sacraments and eschatology and make it look easy is quite another.

Tim Powers is the only author I know who can do all these things well. And Last Call is one of his best. Read it. ( )
  bespen | May 4, 2017 |
This novel is an excellent example of magic being incorporated into a modern setting so convincingly that you find yourself half believing it.

In the Las Vegas area, a game of power is played out over the course of decades by a small number of people who can use magic. (Magic affects everyone, it is implied, but very few people are aware of this.) The magical system, based on the Tarot, is heavily Jungian; it is powered by archetypes of the conscious and unconscious human mind. The story involves figures like The Fisher King and The Fool, as well as greater powers like Artemis/Diana, Dionysus, and Death.

Those who understand the ways that these archetypes are linked to the human soul can use them to their advantage... but this often - or always? - requires some sort of sacrifice or trade-off. The girls who are trying to assume the role of Artemis cannot ever touch meat or alcohol - literally never; one time in their life and they’re permanently ruined for the goddess role! The man who (unwittingly) plays the role of the Fisher King can’t touch alcohol without it slowly killing him, etc. This is because they are in opposition to the god Dionysus, the god of wine.

As often occurs in this subgenre, the magic is presented subtly at first. In the opening pages, we’re not even sure if the magic is real or if the man who is trying to use it is insane. Later it is presented as if it’s merely magic in the psychological sense of allowing you to influence other people. Soon enough, though, it becomes clear that the magic is quite literal, e.g. the main villain can kill people and take over their bodies; he inhabits them.

In one astounding sequence of scenes the hero, Scott, gives in to his craving for alcohol. The spirit of alcohol, Dionysus, appears to Scott in the form of the ghost of his late wife, and Scott’s plunge back into drunkenness manifests in his mind as a sexual orgy with her. At some level he knows this, knows that what seems to him like wild sex with his wife on the hotel’s sweat-drenched sheets is really him drinking himself well-nigh into a coma. But the illusion seems real, and Scott doesn’t much care. When it’s over and he has started to recover, he thinks, If that was sex, I am ready to gladly embrace Death.

Incidentally, this scene is an excellent example of a literal event and its metaphorical meaning blending perfectly. An addictive drug as seduction could hardly be portrayed more vividly. And of course, as with all good metaphors, the metaphorical reading is optional; the scene functions perfectly well as a literal manifestation of Dionysus using magical illusion to attack one of his enemies.

(This example also gives the lie to those who claim to find no value in the fantasy genre. Addiction as a psychological attack could not be presented so forcefully without magic, because we need Dionysus as a literal enemy to make this scene possible at the literal level. And of course, it can’t function metaphorically if it doesn’t function literally. I rarely bother arguing with idiots who disdain fantasy - a certain level of idiocy deters one from bothering - but sometimes it’s irresistible. While I’m on the subject: In the Harry Potter series, Hermione Granger has to protect her family from her enemies, who might strike at her family in order to strike at her. To protect them she must erase all knowledge of her from their minds, so that even mind-reading enemies cannot link them to her. She uses a magical spell to permanently delete herself from her parents' memories, and never sees them again. Such an emotionally wrenching scene would be impossible without that magical spell.)

Scott and his wife’s ghost, or rather the illusion of his wife’s ghost, then drive out into the desert (for reasons I’ve forgotten). As they’re tooling along, Scott opens a bottle of wine and says to her, “Would you like some of this?”

“I am it, darling,” she replies.

After they’ve reached their destination and are searching an abandoned building in the desert, the image of his wife begins to decay. Soon enough, it is apparent what it really is for Scott. He looks at the crouching skeleton, decorated with a few scraps of hanging flesh and surmounted by a malevolently grinning skull, and realizes, This was indifferent Death. This was nobody’s ally.

In terms of the plotting, I have only one objection (SPOILER WARNING): Scott has lost his eye and his father knows it. So his father doesn’t recognize him when he shows up again in the 1969 Assumption game? It doesn’t even occur to him that the guy with one eye might be his son? Come on, Powers! This could have been dealt with somehow, e.g., Scott is self-conscious about his eye, so he wears shades. People have been known to do this in card games! The same objection applies to the second set of Assumption games that are played circa 1990. Seriously, another player with one eye? His father doesn’t notice or get suspicious? Aargh!

But overall, this is a very good novel indeed. I cannot recall ever having read anything quite like it. I suppose some of Stephen King’s fiction from the 1970s and 1980s has a similar combination of narrative propulsion and magical peril, e.g. The Stand.

Powers wrote two sequels to Last Call, but this novel is so good that one fears a sequel might be a let-down. I intend to re-read it before I take a shot at a sequel, so that before I have to absorb more material, I can re-absorb the pleasures of this ka-pow of a book at a leisurely pace, instead of the furious pace at which I first read it. ( )
  TFleet | Jan 4, 2017 |
This book was fantastic. I was listening to it on Audible, and I found myself sitting in a chair for over an hour at a time doing nothing but listening to it. Really fascinating take on tarot and playing cards, mind control, psychic links, and the like. I got the book on Kindle to read it physically the next time around, and bought the next two books in the trilogy as well. ( )
  NatalieSW | Nov 23, 2016 |
"Last night I stayed up late playing poker with Tarot cards. I got a full house and four people died." - Steven Wright

While finishing with The Stand, the climax of which takes place in a haunting, demonic ghost town version of Las Vegas, I had to struggle not to compare King's version of bad magic in Sin City to Tim Powers' in Last Call, one of my all-time favorite novels. And the comparison was totally unfair of me to make, because as far as I'm concerned, Tim Powers is the sine qua non of making the ordinary strange, and the strange ordinary, and nowhere has he to date done it better than in this bizarrely awesome novel, in which the archetypes of the Tarot meet the warty fat man in the famous Mandelbrot fractal and Bugsy Siegel was once the Fisher King of the American West.

And it all happens because of poker. Well, poker and a special kind of demented hunger for power, the latter satisfied in an exceedingly strange way by means of an extremely strange version of the former. As in a poker game played with an exceptionally powerful Tarot deck. If you get a full house in this game, you don't kill people a la Steven Wright, but you do risk losing your immortal soul, or at least your body; you risk becoming a new host for an evil magician type who is doing his damndest not only to become the new Fisher King, but to stay king forever. Yowza.

Our hero is an aging beery bum of a semi-professional poker player, adopted by a poker legend as a young child after being deposited, Moses-like, in a trailered boat by a doomed mother frantic to escape her terrifying husband. Scott "Scarecrow" Crane is literally and physically scarred by this barely-remembered childhood trauma even before he is manipulated into joining a certain game played with a certain deck under the aegis of a certain mysteriously powerful someone who has been desperately seeking a way to become a metaphysical parent since he was thwarted in being a real one...

The dual nature of the relationship between our man Crane and the evil magician Georges Leon is the first of many neat parallels with the dual Fisher King/Wounded King motif in Arthurian legend, and is just one of the many delights awaiting the literary nerd, the student of nature and human nature, the math and probability geek, the gambling aficionado, the archetypal psychology fan. Powers' magical system, developed here and revisited in later semi-sequels/sidequels (Expiration Date and Earthquake Weather now marketed after the fact with Last Call as a trilogy called "Fault Lines") is the most compellingly believable I've ever encountered, logical and thoroughly imagined and plausible to the point where to this day if I happen to see peoplebplaying cards, I catch myself watching how cigarette smoke billows across the table or levels in drinks tilt or don't tilt, as clues to how the game is going, what the stakes might be, who is going to win -- and how all of this might somehow predict the future. And we won't even talk about what I think of a certain mathematical set, which gives me the creeps to this day.

And oh, the characters. Especially the villains, of whom there are many, in a stunning variety. Al Funo, the social maladroit who thinks he's some kind of major smooth operator, whom Powers imbues with stunning creepiness, banal phrase by banal phrase. Ray-Joe Pogue, resplendent in Elvis gear (hey, this is Vegas, baby) and the Amino Acids (who else but Tim Powers could make a bunch of guys in El Caminos scary?). Vaughan Trumbill, the illustrated fat man with the world's weirdest case of Renfield syndrome.* Dondi Snayheever, raised in a series of Skinner boxes to become the world's greatest poker player, abused into becoming a demented psychic dowsing rod instead. And then there's the bad king, Georges Leon himself, tapped into all of the godlike power this archetypal kingship offers, using it only to prolong his life and keep swapping.

What really sells this novel, though, is the magic, rendered by Powers as a precise set of analogy and correspondence between will and result. It's consistent, powerful and, unlike what we usually see in the urban fantasy genre (I've argued elsewhere that Powers was writing urban fantasy before urban fantasy was a thing), contemporary, even as it also hooks into the good old Jungian archetypes represented by the Tarot and Arthurian legend. These are not people adhering to the rituals and rites found in some dusty 500 year old spell book; there is creativity and cleverness in what they do as a result of observing and learning and, OMG, thinking for themselves. No wise old man is handing out quests here. Hooray!

Since I last read this book, I got to visit Hoover Dam, where one of the climactic scenes of the novel takes place (just before Holy Week, yet, which is next week as I dictate these lines). So of course I shivered, looking out at Lake Mead and wondering if maybe Bugsy Siegel's head wasn't down in the depths somewhere. I watched the other visitors for telltale herky-jerky movements. I prayed I wouldn't see an Elvis. Even though I knew Diana had tamed the water.

Happy Easter, everybody!

I swear all of that will make sense if you read the book. All of that and more.

*There's an illustration by the brilliant J.T. Potter of him as the Mandelbrot Man in the deluxe hardcover edition that will scare the crap out of you. ( )
1 vote KateSherrod | Aug 1, 2016 |
Ah, now this is the[[Tim Powers]] novel I needed to read. Reputed to be one of his best, 1992's [Last Call] follows his usual practice of building intriguing secret histories by mixing bits of actual history with the fantastic. Here, history and fantasy meet in Las Vegas, that strange kingdom in the desert, built on hopes for the supernatural in the form of luck at gambling.

The most important bit of real history in the book is the story of Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, the gangster who began Las Vegas's journey to becoming a gambling paradise. History tells us that Siegel was gunned down in his girlfriend's house on June 20, 1947, by unknown persons. In [Last Call], we learn that Siegel was the Fisher King, ruling over this arid land, and that his killer, one Georges Leon, went on to replace him as Vegas's secret master.

In the Fisher King story, the King has an injury which hinders his ability to rule, and which is reflected in a sickness in the land. The lurid towerscape of modern Las Vegas, gulping water unsustainably, drawing people who desperately game away their savings and the precious energies of their lives, provides Powers's main setting, and an emblem of its ruler's sickness, a sickness derived from Leon's selfish quest for a terrible immortality.

It seems that games of chance link our ordered, daylight world with the chaotic depths of the human subconscious. In those depths swim the great archetypes that rule our selves and our actions. Leon learns to use card games, played not with the standard 52-card deck but with the larger Tarot deck, to steal his opponents' bodies. He can replace their personalities with his own, possessing several at one time, switching his consciousness between them, acquiring younger ones as the current ones age. Only once in 20 years can he play the great game that enables this theft. There, several opponents become marked, slated to be dispossessed of their bodies after the subsequent game, 20 years in the future.

In 1948, Leon tries to short-circuit the process, to capture the body of his five year old son, Scotty. Leon's wife sacrifices her life to get Scotty away from his father, and the boy ends up with a caring, adoptive father, Ozzie, who teaches him to become a superb poker player. In 1969, Scotty defies Ozzie, plays in a game which turns out to be Leon's, and is marked for assimilation in two decades. In 1990, the heart-attack death of his wife, the need to earn more poker money, and increasing attention from Leon's agents bring Scotty Crane, as he's now known, back into his father's kingdom. He must find some way to escape his doom.

The story belongs almost as much to Ozzie's second adopted child, Diana, as to Scotty. Diana's mother was the hidden Queen of Las Vegas, murdered by Leon's agents, for this King will brook no Queen at his side. As the Queen's daughter, Diana is also a murder target, facing attacks against herself and her young sons. As Diana's mother was, in this world, Isis, so Diana's story adds the Osiris and Isis myth to the novel. Tarot lore is relevant throughout. Also hitting Vegas are various other characters who also understand the powers in play, seeking the King's or Queen's seats for themselves, serving as Leon's criminal henchmen, or looking for some sort of rescue or shelter. Chaos theory and the Mandelbrot set make appearances. And the gods and goddesses of the great archetypes are most intent on what may happen.

Despite the many elements in play, Powers maintains a thriller's pace. The several crucial card games are suspenseful, vividly recounted, and easy to follow. The foundational stories of myth are well-integrated and brought up to date. For example, when Scotty's desperate mother, chased by Leon, must give her child to the world, she puts him in a boat, which sits on a car trailer, bound out into the desert - there being no reed baskets or streams available.

Powers takes time for humor, too. Here, Scotty is seeking a copy of Leon's preternaturally dire Lombardy Zeroth Tarot deck. He phones a specialist bookseller, who says none can be found:

"Bullshit," said Crane. "I've seen two different complete decks, one in 1948 and one in 1969. And I've talked to the man who painted one of them."

There was a long silence from the other end of the line. Finally the man said, quietly, "Was he all right?"

"Well, he was blind." Crane was silent now for a few seconds. "He, uh, cut out his eyes twenty years ago."

"Did he indeed. And you've seen the cards, a full deck. Are you all right."



"Trust me," said the voice on the telephone, "it won't help you to look at those things again. Absorb yourself with crossword puzzles and daytime soap operas. Actually, obtaining a lobotomy might be your wisest course."

There are sequels, but the book stands alone perfectly well, with a satisfying conclusion. ( )
3 vote dukedom_enough | May 3, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Tim Powersprimary authorall editionscalculated
Lovell, RickCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Potter, J. K.Cover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Georges Leon held his little boy's hand too tightly and stared up from under his hatbrim at the unnaturally dark noon sky.
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The fate of the world / rests in the hands of a Jack / and a long-hand con. (Myriadbooks)

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 038072846X, Paperback)

Enchantingly dark and compellingly real, the World Fantasy Award-winning novel Last Call is a masterpiece of magic realism from critically acclaimed author Tim Powers.

Set in the gritty, dazzling underworld known as Las Vegas, Last Call tells the story of a one-eyed professional gambler who discovers that he was not the big winner in a long-ago poker game . . . and now must play for the highest stakes ever as he searches for a way to win back his soul.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:25 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Scott Crane abandoned his career as a professional poker player twenty years ago and hasn't returned to Las Vegas, or held a hand of cards, in ten years. But troubling nightmares about a strange poker game he once attended on a houseboat on Lake Mead are drawing him back to the magical city. For the mythic game he believed he won did not end that night in 1969 and the price of his winnings was his soul. Now, a pot far more strange and perilous than he ever could imagine depends on the turning of a card. Enchantingly dark and compellingly real, this World Fantasy Award winning novel is a masterpiece of magic realism set in the gritty, dazzling underworld known as Las Vegas.… (more)

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